Arts concert review

Yo-Yo Ma’s modern-day Silk Road

World-famous cellist’s eclectic ensemble visits Boston

7324 yoyoma
Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble perform at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Courtesy of Robert Torres

The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma 15th Anniversary Concert

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma has done more than create music with his Silk Road Ensemble — he’s united the world with an innovative approach to cross-cultural exchange. His eclectic group, which performed at Symphony Hall as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston last Wednesday, consistently breaks down the borders of music. Featuring instruments, composers, and musicians from every corner of the globe, the Silk Road Ensemble performed six original pieces — at times scattered, but thoroughly vibrant and entertaining.

The Ensemble introduced itself with Side In Side Out, a work by Kojiro Umezaki with jumble of instruments and tones. Umezaki’s shakuhachi, or Japanese bamboo flute, was the highlight. Because air flowed liberally through the flute without substantial tone, the sound of rushing wind contributed to the edgy nature of Umezaki’s solos.

Yo-Yo Ma, both artistic director and performer, exudes warmth and geniality. After joking about the weather, he made some remarks on the 15th anniversary of the Ensemble, and led his group into the Taranta Project, a feverish piece. The audience loved Joseph Gramley’s percussion solo, using his hands to create a beat all over his body, which would have seemed impromptu if not for its impressive precision.

My favorite piece was Paramita, an arrangement by composer Zhao Lin, featuring Ma on cello. Through mesmerizing movements, structured like a sublime film score, the Ensemble was able to convey the story of a Tang Dynasty monk’s pilgrimage. Ma, here more than in any other piece, displayed his universally acclaimed clarity and smoothness of tone. I preferred this piece because it was by far the best narrative of the six — while some others seemed energetic, they elicited a weak image, and told no tale.

Of course, the skill required to perform each piece was evident. Cristina Pato’s Latina 6/8 Suite was a torrent of sound, a mix of Italian, Spanish, and Latin American traditional dances. Her Galician bagpipes were wailing and musical, and the double bass boomed heavily, driving each movement into the next. I loved the evident jazz influences and multicultural roots, though audience members could have easily gotten lost in the fray.

Jugalbandi, Sanskrit for duet, featured Kayhan Kalhor on the Persian fiddle and Sandeep Das on the tabla, the Indian drums. The two unquestionably have chemistry, as Das himself remarked before the piece. While Das skillfully set a sound of ambience in the slow-building piece, Kalhor’s kamancheh, as it is called, gave off a thoroughly pleasing sound — nasal, yet mellow. It matched well with the cello and violin accompaniment from Mike Block and Colin Jacobsen, respectively.

Yo-Yo Ma, a French-born Chinese American who graduated from Harvard in 1976, has one of the most expansive repertoires of all musicians. He has performed at the edge of many genres and cultures, and his creativity flows into others, radiating from his Silk Road Ensemble.